NEWS

The Greek-American epidemiologist who 'misled' Donald Trump

PAVLOS PAPADOPOULOS

TAGS: Coronavirus, Science

Could it be that Stanford Professor John Ioannidis helped decide US President Donald Trump’s stance on coronavirus, especially his opposition to lockdowns? Quite likely, according to news website Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed has obtained several emails sent by Ioannidis to several scientific collaborators, including one on March 28, where he says, “I think our ideas have inflitrated [sic] the White House regardless,” alluding to the fact that the meeting he requested with Trump never actually took place.

The 54-year-old professor of disease prevention, medicine, health research and policy (epidemiology) and, by courtesy, of statistics and of biomedical data science, at Stanford, became known worldwide 15 years ago for his meta-research (research on research) paper titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”

True to his iconoclastic reputation, Ioannidis believes that the coronavirus is no more fatal than the common flu. As a result, lockdowns can actually endanger many more lives through the inevitable economic crises that they entail.

Scientists at Oxford University took a similar approach; in fact, they clashed with colleagues at London’s Imperial College, who were strongly in favor of a lockdown. But Ioannidis’ ideas were called “scientifically untenable at that time, and untenable from the perspective of decision-making especially,” Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health epidemiologist, told Buzzfeed News, reflecting the opinion of many epidemiologists.

Back in March, Ioannidis claimed that the spread of the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship showed that the number of asymptomatic carriers – that is, those who carry the coronavirus but do not get sick – was much greater than those who developed symptoms. Therefore, mortality as a percentage of the various carriers is very small.

Ioannidis didn’t stop there but he invited seven other scientists from Stanford, the universities of California at Berkeley and San Diego and Yale to call for a meeting with President Trump. [Note: Two of Ioannidis’ seven colleagues have told Buzzfeed News that they would not agree with him on lockdowns. All were in agreement about greatly expanded testing.]

The meeting did not take place, but many speculate that the US president was aware of Ioannidis’ activities – after all, he had appeared on Fox News. This may be the reason that, although Trump decided to impose a lockdown on March 23, he immediately added that the country must reopen by Easter (April 12).

Meanwhile, Ioannidis completed an antibody study in California’s Santa Clara County in April which confirmed the data from the Diamond Princess and showed that the number of asymptomatic virus carriers is 50 to 85 times that of carriers with symptoms and that, therefore, the real mortality is 0.12 to 0.20 percent. (Recently, Ioannidis revised that figure to 0.27 percent. Other studies, accepted by the World Health Organization, put mortality at 0.68 percent.)

Ioannidis’ study was fiercely criticized, not only in terms of methodology – he seems to have ignored certain population segments – but also on ethical grounds. One of the study’s funders was David Neeleman, the billionaire founder of airline JetBlue (and, since 2017, a Cypriot citizen). Airlines are among the industries that have been hardest hit by lockdowns.

Ioannidis has admitted Neeleman funded the study, but said claims that the study was designed to confirm a pre-determined viewpoint were nonsensical. He has admitted certain methodological errors, which he has corrected, without these corrections impacting the results greatly.

What many accuse the Greek professor of is influencing Trump, and other leaders, to adopt measures belatedly and half-heartedly, failing to respond effectively to the pandemic. Ioannidis had proposed measures for special population categories but had opposed lockdowns (Buzzfeed News notes that he has somewhat modified his view on that). But one of the greatest charges against him was that, in March, and based on the Diamond Princess case, he had forecast that 10,000 people would die in the United States. The death toll there currently stands at more than 150,000. Of course, on the one hand, one can say that only 6% of these died solely of the coronavirus, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report; the rest had, on average, 2.6 underlying conditions. But one can counter that those died under restrictions. What would happen without a lockdown? (Solomon Hsiang, director of UC Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory, estimates that social distancing policies averted 60 million infections nationwide, Buzzfeed reports.)

Maybe the strongest criticism against Ioannidis is that, in his way, he contributed to underestimating a disease whose effects on the body, even on asymptomatic carriers of the virus, are still not fully understood, while those who have been sick describe going through a very difficult time. It is perhaps significant that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has been in touch with many world-renowned epidemiologists, has avoided contacting Ioannidis. Maybe the prime minister was convinced from the start that his predictions were “scientifically untenable,” as Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch has said, and no country could have avoided quarantine in the face of such an aggressive disease. We are in no position to know if Trump regrets getting his cues from Fox News; but the scientific and political clashes will obviously continue.

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